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Why Not a Worship Set?  

Recently, I was asked about why we punctuate our service with songs rather than use the typical three to five song set before a sermon. First, singing five songs in a row is not bad. I've led services like this, and will enjoy leading more. However, for our main weekly worship diet, there are a few reasons to continue the old practice of what could be called a "call and response" approach to our order of worship (liturgy, habits, etc.). Here are four:

1. Because of Church History

Worship has certainly taken on many forms throughout the history of the church. Further, it looks and feels different around the world. Yet, by and large, reading Scripture, then praying, then singing, then confessing, then teaching, then singing has been the basic approach. This was true in the synagogue, the early church, the reformation and beyond. This is true because it's based on #2.

2. Because it's a Scriptural Pattern

There is an obvious call and response pattern throughout the Bible, not only in the various moments of worship but also in the way humans interact with God. 

God calls Abram - he responds with worship and by moving. 
God meets with Moses - he responds by removing his sandles and arguing. 
God leads the exodus - Moses responds in song. 
God calls Isaiah - he responds by saying, "woe is me."
God's law is read - people respond in commitment, repenting in dust and ashes, or in song
Jesus asks his disciples about his identity - Peter responds with confession of faith. 
Jesus serves communion - and the disciples respond in singing a hymn. 

The pattern is littered throughout. Ultimately, this is reason we punctuate worship with a call and response. 

3. Because worship is not separate from preaching.  

Worship is not music. Rather, worship includes music. It has been said many times, but worship also includes preaching, praying, reading, etc. 

One of my brothers was a member of the crew of a popular Christian and Charismatic band. He reported that folks openly spoke of "worship" as the main course, the real deal, the "most important thing we can do." At the churches they visited preaching was an element, but often relegated to an after thought, a short word of encouragement, or even nixed altogether if the "main course" went long. 

In those contexts the written and preached Word became less and less important. Inevitably, this approach is a servant to experientialism. If one is not "moved" they move on to another church. Being moved becomes more important than being shaped. 

4. Because we are worshippers.

One consistent reason I've heard for the three to five song set is that we need to prepare hearts to receive the word. In its best light, this is helpful. However, in its worst light it can turn into manipulation. It's true that we can come to church with all sorts of things on our minds. It's also true that a song can help us focus. But, so can silence, scripture reading, or praying. And yet so far I have not heard anyone argue for a set of five periods of silence in a row. Clearly, the emotional aspect of the music can become the focus. 

I'd like to suggest that we stop trying to get people "ready to worship and receive the word."

Some may think this is splitting hairs, but what lies behind this suggestion is the truth that we were created as worshippers. That is, we walk into a worship service already worshipping. We may be worshipping ourselves, our stomachs, or our plans, and we may even need a song or a moment of silence to help us have a good frame of mind, but we don't have to try to press the worship button. As leaders, once we accept this, we should be able to side step all forms of manipulation and begin to see our task as discipleship.

From the very first words, silence, or song in the service we are engaged in shaping souls, appetites, and affections.

Therefore, it makes sense that we should consider the practice of the universal church, emphasize the pattern we find in the Word, connect many of our elements in the service to the word preached, and thereby engage in the great task of shaping souls after Christ. As leaders, this is our calling. What is the response?

 

Protest Is the New Plea 

During this very odd year I've been surprised at how quickly we in the church speak up about our rights. Just like in our country at large, self-defense and division in the church is extremely common. 

Here’s one example among many. Some castigate those wearing masks as slaves and wimps, while others retort that those who won't mask up clearly don't care about the life of their neighbor. The first group defends their right to do what they want while the second defends their right to demand that others conform to their view. In this post I won’t deal with their positions. What’s interesting is that the way these two camps deal with differences is very similar. Both camps reflect disordered hearts. 

Protest is the new plea. Rights replace responsibility. Demands mask dependence. Emotions eclipse everything. Meanwhile, division grows deeper while pleading to God for protection from temptation is almost non-existent.  Though more could be explored, below are several arenas in which this plays out. Unfortunately, the current philosophical temperature sets the tone and in turn infects the political, theological, and emotional. Tragically, it has also formed the way we worship, rather than the other way around. 

Protest is the New Plea 

We have a philosophical problem. As a society we have come to accept that how we feel about self is our ultimate truth. Even if you would object to this idea on the face of it, it has slowly crept in into the church and is spreading. We accept that almost every inclination is natural. Further, we demand that others affirm our inclinations and feelings. If they don’t, we protest with our feet, accusations, anger, etc. To repeat, I’m not just talking about the culture at large. This describes how the church has acted as well, especially through 2020. 

For a scholarly and insightful look at the water in which we swim, grab Carl Truman's "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self." It's brilliant and readable. 

Rights Replace Responsibility 

We also have a political ideal problem. The "doctrine of right," which was originally rooted in the Protestant concept of Natural Law, has been unhinged from the concept of personal obligations and duties. The idea that your rights exist because I have a moral responsibility to behave according to God's law (and vice-versa) is disappearing. Practically speaking, rather than pleading with God to help us live morally responsible lives which in turn secures the rights of others, we have turned the idea of 'rights' on its head in order to defend and protect any personal whim or inclination. 

Our new philosophy is that it’s my right to make you either put up with, affirm, or protect my desires. 

Demands Mask Dependence 

The church has swallowed both the philosophical and political pills. This has either created, or at least exacerbated, an existing theological problem. Again, no longer do we plead for protection against temptation. Instead, we defend our temptations toward sin as God-given, natural traits. Some have even removed temptation from the category of sin altogether based on a faulty understanding of the temptation of Christ and a lack of appreciation of depravity. We seldom plea for strength against our own temptations, because after all, they are not actually sin. We have gone topsy-turvy and adjusted our theological categories based on the philosophical and political air we breathe. We are now content to live with temptations as kind old friends in our hearts because there is no theological reason to curb them.

The result is the same. We demand that others embrace our issues while dependence upon God is shoved to the corners of our spiritual lives.

Emotions Eclipse Everything 

The way we feel trumps all other truths. At a gut level, we feel that our temptations just can’t always be laced with sin. We feel that demanding that others affirm for our proclivities, outbursts, and rage is much more palatable than the hard work of pleading, confession, and repentance. We feel that rudeness is justified as long as it’s directed at the people you hate.

Once again, we’ve gone heels-over-head (backward intentionally) and the result is that pleading for God's help has given way to emotional outbursts against our pet issues (bigotry, government overreach, racism, stupidity, science as god, etc.). And we openly defend this attitude because we feel it’s our right. Further, we swoon with appreciation when someone beats up our enemies. 

Our Practice is Paltry 

Sadly, our worship often reflects all of the above. Pleading to God has become foreign. Instead, we actually agree that we should be ‘authentic’ rather than sincerely sorrowful for sins that come so naturally. We believe Jesus lets us off the hook, and so we just live with our temptations since we 'are who we are.' Or, we avoid pleading in worship because we deem it to be a downer. 

We’ve experienced how hard it is to change our feelings and probably don't even think we can or should. If we are so unfortunate as to be part of a church that won’t adjust to our likes and dislikes, we ignore those parts or protest with our feet. But more often than not, our church leaders kindly avoid or gloss over confession of sin. They emphasize that we are redeemed, precious, loved, amazing, and basically good (as long as we like Jesus, defend freedom, and oppose abortion).

The result is that worship is shaped by our desires more than our spiritual need. This unbalanced approach to worship eventually causes us to treat the weekly call to plead for mercy as perfunctory, replacing it with an unspoken call to rail against the culture, stand up for ourselves, and claim our "rights." After all, we are justified, precious, and deserve to live the way we want. Do our modern worship services reinforce the modern view of self? 

A Reordered Heart 

We might want to blame certain politicians, but it’s our disordered hearts that are dividing the church. And yet this is not to say we should walk around with our heads hung in shame from now on. Instead, we should simply take a true accounting of our attitudes and start pleading for protection from the enemy within.  One way to reorder our hearts is to be very careful with what’s influencing what. Worship, both personal and corporate, should be informed by the Scriptures. That in turn should inform our feelings, theology, politics, and philosophy. 

Here’s just one suggestion for where to begin. My friend and pastor, Kevin DeYoung, has recently emphasized that the Lord's Prayer is a type of daily prayer. He pointed out that Jesus implies that a near constant request for daily provision would be good for us. The same would follow for protection from temptation and deliverance from evil. 

I have no doubt this kind of daily and weekly prayer would reorder our ideals. Whether we call it a daily liturgy or habit or whatever, it would help us have biblically ordered hearts which honor the Lord, pray for the kingdom to come, grow in gratefulness for daily provision, and plead for strength for when we are tempted to sin. 

Upending 

Maybe it would begin to upend our bad philosophical assumptions, mixed up political ideals, theological errors, emotional outbursts, and one-sided worship. Perhaps moral responsibility would become desirable. Maybe we would even stop demanding that others make room for us and begin living to make room for others. Maybe protests would turn to pleading.

Need and Gratefulness  

Worship Notes for Jan. 24, 2021 

Christian worship should cause us to let go of self-sufficiency. Of course, this flies in the face of what we naturally pick up from our own culture. Self-sufficiency, independence, self-reliance, survival, and the like have an almost revered status. 

True, the old "teach a man to fish" proverb has its place. However, singing, "I am a rock, I am an Island" may not capture the heart of a repentant sinner. Further, to touch on current events, the promises of President after President to fix all societal ills ring hollow. Yes, hope is good, but fool hardy self-sufficiency is a distraction from our ultimate need.  

This week, much of our service at Christ Covenant will highlight that need, which is deep and multifaceted. Yet the Lord's provision is deeper and complete, which means ultimately we can respond in gratefulness. 

Fleas 

In our home we've been reading A Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom's account of hiding Jews during the Second World War, eventually being caught, and being imprisoned in a German concentration camp. One especially poignant scene is when her sister Betsie reminds her to be thankful for all they have in their new horrific circumstance, including the fleas that were crawling up their legs. Later, they realize they have the freedom to read their smuggled Bible out loud because their guards would not enter the flea-ridden barracks. As they read, other ladies translate the Dutch into German, French and more, passing the words of life from one bunk to another. The beauty of the scene is stark against the ugly backdrop of the death camps. 

We have a hard time imagining the depth of their need. Yet, provision came in the form of fleas and a little freedom from onlooking guards. Amazingly, gratefulness grew in spite of, and even because of their incredibly desperate situation.  

The current political state in America (both before the inauguration and now) certainly highlights our spiritual need. But I wonder if our societal mess is actually provision; fleas as it were. I have received a few visceral responses to this suggestion, but the fact that the Ten Boom's trial produced gratefulness long before any of that trial was removed is instructive. I don't want America to fail. I love my country and pray for peace. However, more than this, I want to see the church I love replace self-sufficiency with gratefulness. It's easy to say and hard to live, but trials, need, and provision may be the medicine we need to take.  

Take It Home 

We print a full bulletin every week (and provide it online here). This not only helps us during corporate worship, it also allows us to walk through the elements of the service later in the day or during the week. Take it home, read through it again, and this week return to the opening hymn several times. There we are reminded that we hurt and he heals, we know grief and he brings peace; we despair and he gives hope; we need and he provides. To God all praise and glory.

Planning with Pastoral Interns 

I have been working with several pastoral interns as they plan our worship services for the next four weeks (July 12 - Aug. 2). We are looking forward to learning together. Already I have noticed that I will learn a lot from them. It's great to collaborate, whether we are talking about writing songs or planning worship. It breaks you out of ruts and grooves that you don't even see. 

How to Plan

I've encouraged our interns to think in terms of themes, theological categories, emotional quality, and most of all making the service lead through a "gospel arc." That is, I've asked them to ask themselves, "does this service highlight the gospel in some way?" Does it lead us through seeing a God who calls us to holiness, a Savior who provides that holiness, and the Spirit who helps us walk in holiness?

Of course, they will also be balancing things like length, keeping songs we don't know to a minimum, prayers, readings, etc. Plus, they will be making assignments for who does what, and they will be leading a portion of the service themselves as well. 

Until You Do It

I believe it's important that more seminary students spend more time thinking about and actually planning worship. A class is good and important. However, until you are thrown into the actual planning process with real live people in mind you don't really understand all that you must balance. Plus, there is something about actually leading in front of people that gives you a sense of what connects, what falls flat, what's important to do even if it did fall flat.

Then, of course, there's the variable of working with the other pastors and musicians. How well will they understand what your intent was when you planned? Did you communicate that well? Did you consider or ask about their skills, personalities, backgrounds? And these are just a sampling of all that may come up in the course of ministry in various contexts. 

It's Worth It

Finally, once the dust has settled, once the service has come and gone, there is the joy of knowing that you had a part in helping a congregation see more of Christ. The hope and prayer is that all these efforts lead to a people to grow in holiness and affection for Christ and others. This makes all the planning and prayer worth it. Plus, from my own perspective, this exercise of working with pastoral interns provides the opportunity to shape several young men in how they think about and plan for worship. That's a privilege.  

Yesterday, Today, and Forever 

Colossians 3:16 (ESV) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 

This is an incredibly familiar passage. Equally familiar are the debates about the use of traditional versus contemporary music in worship. A little less familiar are the debates about singing psalms only. On the face of it, the verse would seem to answer all the debates. Shouldn’t we just use all three categories? Yes, but the conversations continue. 

So Yesterday: Hymns 

Some disparage using hymns in worship for various reasons. One argument is that the three categories listed in Colossians are simply categories of psalms. After all, several psalm inscriptions describe it as “a song.” Further, they will often point out mistaken (or at least squishy) theology in some hymns and songs, and rightly so. 

Other’s will disparage hymns because they are boring, out dated, too hard to sing, or connected with historical events or movements we don’t appreciate anymore. You don’t have to look too hard to find someone who will beat up on hymns. 

So Today: Songs 

Yet, you can easily find folks who throw most praise and worship songs under the bus (both modern worship songs and older gospel songs). Many will argue that they are vapid, simplistic, repetitive, melodically boring, and lyrically one-dimensional. Plus, many have pointed out that modern praise music pretty much repels men. Those in this camp can easily find low hanging fruit to pick on. I certainly have. 

Add to this the painfully obvious marketing machine…. Now, marketing itself is fine, but we all cringe a bit knowing that major dollars are spent to make the next big worship song common place on radio and in churches, perfectly timed for Easter to boot. Should songwriters and record executives be the driving force behind the church’s song texts? Good question. In any case it seems there is plenty to complain about when it comes to the modern worship song phenomenon. 

So Forever: Psalms 

Then there is the unused Psalter. Some will quickly point out that many praise songs are psalms. But I’m speaking of singing through a large portion of a psalm, or even a whole psalm. Avoiding this is understandable. The texts are often awkward and at times the subject matter can feel out of place and uncomfortable. Singing the Psalms confronts our milk-toast theology. It forces us to grapple with texts that paint God in ways that would never pass the bumper sticker committee. 

Plus, while there are some great tunes, fewer good tunes have been offered for psalms than hymns. Thankfully that’s changing, but if you spend a little time around psalms-only singers you will find that they have their favorites (i.e. Psalm 98), as well as a bunch of tunes they avoid because of a lack of beauty and healthy dose of clunkiness. Plus, though I assume it is not their intent, some traditions of psalm-singing smack of legalism and pride. So, too often we abuse the Psalter simply by neglect. 

One Big Happy Family 

Yet… so many hymns are loved, so many have wonderful melodies, so many have been driven deep into our hearts and are a common touch point for millions. Plus, hundreds of hymns are very accessible and singable (if you choose the right key). I wonder how many hymns of the faith have been sung by family members around the deathbed of a loved one. Hymns are a gift to the body of Christ. To skip over hymns is to skip over hundreds of years of devotional insight from the saints who have gone before us. To dump hymnody is to disconnect yourself from the church-historical. As to the difficultly of some of the lyrics, there is value in meditating and taking some time to understand what you will sing. 

Yet… there are songs that have been written and are being written that are musically sound and very accessible, while at the same time lyrically thoughtful and theologically rich. Some songs are simple without being simplistic; some are not overly repetitive; and some are repetitive in a good way. Plus, a well written song can capture the heart’s cry in a way an ancient text can’t. To skip over spiritual songs is to disconnect yourself from the church present. There is value in immediately understanding the text in a way that speaks in the way we speak. 

Yet… singing the Psalms, like hymns and songs, is commanded. They are for our edification. Not sure you like them? Oh well. Sing them anyway. You will find that some are glorious, some are hard, and some are downright difficult. So be it. These were the songs of Miriam, Moses, and David. They were also the songs of Jesus. Not only did he sing them, they are his. The next time you are singing a Psalm and it dawns on you that it’s strange or awkward, ask yourself how it points to or is fulfilled in Christ. Even the Psalms that are not obviously Christological find their fulfillment in Christ. They should not be ignored. To skip over the psalms is to disconnect yourself from the church-eternal. There is value in struggling through the Psalter. 

When our singing reflects the universal body of Christ (past, present and future) it reflects the fact that we are one big happy family bound together by truths, texts, and even tunes. 

Ratios 

I’ve been asked, “what percentage of psalms, hymns, and songs should we sing?” I dunno. 1/3, 1/3 and 1/3? I would kind of like 51% psalms, 30% Hymns, and 19% songs. That may be somewhat arbitrary, and yet my reason is that the Psalms are lasting, hymns less so, and songs less than hymns (contemporary, by its very definition, implies a relatively quick passing body of songs). But that ratio is hard to employ in real life, especially if your church has not been in the habit of singing the psalms. 

Therefore, I simply try to use all three categories over several weeks. If there is a Sunday that does not use a song, that’s ok…..or a Sunday that does not have a hymn, fine. No Psalm? Lightening will not strike you down. However, because more often than not we skip Psalms, I tend to emphasize reclaiming the practice. At my last church we were up to 30-40% psalms, in part because the practice was already alive when I arrived. I simply had to build on it. Even so, it takes time to teach, a will to press ahead, and a willingness to get questioned about it. Once you begin, you will find that it’s musically and theologically rewarding. The fruit is eternal, for you are singing the eternal and living word of God. 

So, here’s to psalms, hymns, and songs. Let’s sing ’em.